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Archive for Tuesday, March 26, 1996

ROJOHN FINDS TITLE UNBELIEVABLE

March 26, 1996

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Uneasy rests the head that holds Kansas University's first NCAA diving crown.

Michelle Rojohn, who made KU history last season by becoming the Jayhawks' first diving All-American, one-upped herself on Friday when she won the NCAA three-meter diving title in Ann Arbor, Mich.

She'll have her portrait hung in KU's Athletic Hall of Fame, alongside Tammy Thomas, the only female swimmer to make the hall. She'll participate in the Senior Nationals with the possibility of going to the Olympic Trials, and maybe even the Atlanta Olympics.

The most unlikely of champions, Rojohn took up diving as a last resort as a high school junior, when a knee injury forced her to give up her true passion, gymnastics. She attended KU on a whim and, in the eyes of diving coach Don Fearon, was a "project" when she first came to him.

And, at least for now, she's the best college three-meter diver in the country and the best diver KU has ever had.

Somebody pinch Michelle Rojohn. She must be dreaming.

"It's still pretty unbelievable," said Rojohn, a senior from Olathe. "I still have the feeling I wasn't supposed to do this. It's supposed to be someone who was working for this her whole life."

Fearon's forecast

Fearon was among the first to predict Rojohn's ascension.

About two years ago, Fearon pulled Rojohn aside and said, "You don't know how good you can be."

Rojohn didn't miss a beat: "Maybe, but I'm not afraid to find out."

And earlier this year, Rojohn and Fearon were strolling around Allen Fieldhouse. Fearon glanced up at the Hall of Fame portraits hanging on the walls and said, "You know, if you win the NCAAs, you'll get your picture on the wall."

Rojohn, quick to underestimate her own abilities, dismissed the comment as optimistic at best.

"But every now and then, I'd look up at the pictures on the wall," Rojohn said, "and think it would be really cool if I could get up there. But it wasn't a goal of mine. It wasn't like I dreamed about that as a kid."

As a kid, Rojohn dreamed instead about gymnastics, a sport she practiced since she was 5.

She won the state high school gymnastics all-around title as a senior at Olathe South, but that was her last experience with the sport.

During her sophomore year, Rojohn suffered a knee injury while performing a floor exercise. It was serious enough that Rojohn had to scale back her gymnastics efforts. As a high school junior, she decided to take up diving.

"It was just a fun time for me," Rojohn said. "I just wanted to do something. Things always came easily for me. The skills I learned in gymnastics carried over to diving. Both sports have judges. Both of them are perfection sports. I still miss gymnastics, but diving's a lot easier on your body."

'A late bloomer'

Rojohn made an immediate impact at KU.

Early in her freshman year, Rojohn, who had never stepped on a three-meter board before college, wiped out the school's three-meter record. She has reset it several times since and has added the school one-meter record.

But reconstructive knee surgery and a bout with vertigo -- the result of an inner-ear infection -- sidelined Rojohn for the second half of her freshman season.

"I really look at Michelle's sophomore year as her beginning point," Fearon said. "She competed in high school, but not year-round. She had six months of one-meter in high school. She came here and learned the three-meter, broke a 7-year-old varsity record, but lost the rest of the year to vertigo. So, really, I figure I've only had her for two years, eight months. She's a late bloomer. It's remarkable, but she's put in the time."

As a sophomore, Rojohn won the Big Eight three-meter title and placed fifth in the one-meter. Last year, she won the one-meter and placed third in the three-meter. She went on to become KU's first diving All-American when she placed 13th on the three-meter board in the NCAAs.

She swept both league titles last month and set the Big Eight record in the three-meter along the way. She set the league one-meter record in 1995.

"She's been setting the stage over the last 2 1/2 years," Fearon said. "She has progressively done better and better in the big competitions."

Redemption

When Rojohn competed in gymnastics, she would become engrossed in the competition.

"I'd watch, and if somebody got a 9.5, I'd think, 'I can do that. I'll get a 9.75,'" Rojohn said. "But in diving, I'm not like that. I don't look at the points. That's better for me. A lot of the divers look at the points. But if I do that, I can't concentrate on what I need to concentrate on."

And so it was Friday that Rojohn, who had finished a disappointing 17th on the one-meter board the day before, won the prelims and found herself locked in a close battle for the three-meter title.

She went into her final dive three points off the lead, but she didn't know it. Instead, she retreated to a quiet hallway, out of sight.

"Michelle prefers to get away from the competition," Fearon said. "As soon as they called the girl from Alabama's name, Michelle would show up shortly after that. She found her routine and settled into it."

Even as she approached the board for her final dive, Rojohn had no idea she was approaching KU history.

"They were taping the highlights for ESPN, and they were trying to build it up," Rojohn said. "They were saying, 'And now, the final dive of the NCAA Championships.' But I didn't know the points. My mom has a computer program, and she totals the scores up herself. But I didn't know.

"I didn't think I hit my final dive real good, but I got out of the water and saw my scores and my coach said, 'You won.' I had cameras in my face. My mom was going crazy. It felt great, especially after getting 17th on the one-meter. I felt I let everybody down. I felt I had to redeem myself."

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